During the rein of Tsar Alexis, the only areas throughout Russia that experienced anything even approaching freedom were Siberia and the territories dominated by the Cossacks to the south. This era in Russian history was marked by periodic revolutionary outbursts that eventually resulted in the much more significant revolt led by the Cossack leader Stenka Razin. Stenka Razin gained popularity as a result of his promises to liberate the peasants. Razin’s forces succeeded in conquering several areas of Russia, from the Volga River to the Caspian Sea, but eventually these forced failed under the weight of their own brutality and outrages against the people.
The successful suppression of this Cossack revolt resulted in what would eventually prove to the beginning of the end of the Cossack influence once and for all. By turning back the Cossacks, the Romanov dynasty succeeded in finally achieving what had long been a goal of all preceding dynasties. Those areas of the Ukraine that had been lost were finally absorbed into greater Russia, and the Romanovs solidified their great power as a result. A power that, of course, would eventually be diluted into nothingness and the eventual end of the aristocratic excesses in Russia once and for all.
A century after the Stenka Razin revolt, the Cossacks staged their final revolt in response to the oppressive regime. Among their grievances included the imposition of military service, unchecked corruption among military officers, persecution of dissenters, and the restriction of the right to choose their own superiors. Seizing upon the advantage of a war currently raging between Russia and Turkey, the Cossacks attempted to create legitimacy for their cause by spreading rumors that Tsar Peter III had not actually died, and further that he had reappeared and was supporting their liberal reforms. To lend further credence to their cause, this phantom Peter was credited with possessing religious sympathy for the Old Believers, those who resisted the movement to align Russian and Greek Orthodox dogma and ritual. The appearance of a Cossack impersonator-Yemelyan Pugachev-helped to engender the call for emancipation of the serfs.
Despite the fact that the Cossacks and the peasants actually shared little of the same interests-and the fact that many of them lived in terror of Cossack outrages-the two joined forces, behind the leadership of Pugachev. Pugachev had proven himself more than capable of sparking the enthusiastic revolutionary zeal, but was not nearly as good at planning strategy. Despite a large force behind him, the Cossacks and peasants were woefully incapable, failing in the siege of the fortress at Orenburg. Pugachev was doomed to failure nearly as much because of defections within the Cossacks as because of the might of the Russian army. The result was an utter failure.
Well, perhaps not an utter failure. The revolution did succeed in bringing to the fore the need for reforms, but its failure virtually assured that the opportunity to implement those reforms had passed. At least for the time being. The history of Russia could not be the same without the effect of the influence of the Cossacks and it is even debatable whether the Russian Revolution of 1917 could have come off without lessons learned from the failed Cossack revolutions. The country’s expansion eastward was a direct result of the Cossacks and it can be argued the eventual Bolshevik revolution had its genesis in the many failed peasants revolts in which the Cossacks played a huge part.